An Interview with Susan Stern, Founder of Stern Strategy Group
Susan Stern shares how she made her dream of an honest, respectful and responsive client services agency a reality.
Starting a business is a great endeavor but leading a successful business for nearly 40 years is even better. When Susan founded Stern Strategy Group in 1985, her dream was to build a respectful and honest organization in line with her core values. With Susan now retired, here she reveals the intangible qualities essential to client service that keep Stern Strategy Group forward-thinking in a world changing at lightning speed.
Earlier in your career, you experienced “agency life.” What made you start your own firm?
The organizations where I worked before launching my own firm nearly 40 years ago did not align with my vision for what a truly healthy organization should be. My dream was to create an agency grounded in ethical, outstanding, responsive service and respectful treatment of all stakeholders alike: whether clients, employees or the media covering our clients’ stories.
From my former work experiences, I knew firsthand which actions and behaviors would drive a successful business for the long term, attracting and retaining valued clients and staff for considerable lengths of time. First and foremost, the company would be nothing short of totally honest in its operations and practices, which would be reflected and adhered to by every employee in every aspect of our work. We would provide services to reach client goals, and only services at which we excelled. We would listen, really listen to the needs of the client and the media, responding with thoughtful ideas that work. We would create a workplace where every employee would feel respected, encouraged to share their thoughts and contribute as an active, involved team member. We would work hard and stay focused on delivering top-quality work yet embrace the importance of regular downtime to unwind and enjoy life.
When my husband Danny Stern joined the business 20 years ago, he dedicated four years to helping expand our PR client roster before launching his Speakers and Advisory business. Together, we share resources and office space, and have become a unique firm for thought leadership services. While his business represents noted authorities for their speaking and advisory work, the business I founded provides public relations strategy and services to thought leaders from academia and corporations. Continuing to grow and thrive four decades later, Stern Strategy Group remains true to its core values, which, when added to our blend of services, distinguishes us from other agencies. Many clients and employees have invested more than 10 years in their partnerships with Stern Strategy Group, a testament to both our innovative work and the way we do business.
In a world changing at lightning speed, our organization remains forward thinking, embracing new technologies and approaches to get our clients’ messages heard by the audiences that matter most to them. Even during the increase in work-from-home accommodations during the pandemic, our core values have endured, directing how we live and work together and serving us well, no matter the uncertain times in which we live.
For a successful career, what intangible qualities are most important? How would people know if a career in client service is right for them?
I have seen many individuals who are highly motivated to learn, develop and strengthen the skills required to succeed in agency life. At Stern, we provide support through guidance, training and opportunities to expand our team members’ talents. Clear, strong and engaging communications skills, the ability to appreciate complex business topics and explain them in digestible written and spoken words are essential to servicing clients in the B2B space.
Successful employees are driven to become well-versed in our clients’ industries and services while applying smart strategies to help reach their goals. They enjoy turning our clients’ topics and expertise into tangible results, such as media coverage, speaking engagements and corporate advisory work.
How one works, both in teams and independently, influences their job performance and satisfaction. Being organized, detail-oriented, proactive, having a sense of urgency, demonstrating confidence, interest and positive energy, and generating and sharing new ideas with teammates and clients are keys to success. A client should never need to ask, “What happened to the document you said you’d get back to me last week?” or “Did you ever follow up with that lead you mentioned?” It’s critical to keep clients apprised of the status of all projects and negotiations as well as meet your deadlines. Since you may work on multiple projects and across multiple accounts, without these skills a career at Stern Strategy Group may not be the right fit for you.
What’s one lesson you can impart that’s held true across your career?
Learning is a lifelong endeavor. New and different experiences offer lasting lessons. Stretching beyond one’s comfort zone provides increased confidence, expanded capabilities, and often clearer career goals and growth opportunities. I believe we learn more from our mistakes and challenges than we do from our successes. Over the years, I’ve seen people shy away from difficult business discussions or important stand-up presentations because the fear of conflict or stage fright feels overwhelming. Indeed, stepping into uncomfortable, unknown territory can be scary.
However, my advice to both myself and others is: “Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.” Since we might face similar situations time and again yet never feel comfortable during them, it’s necessary to accept that feeling uncomfortable may never fully disappear. No position in life with important responsibilities will ever provide continual comfort. Yet, if you view each uncomfortable situation as an opportunity to grow, you may find yourself pleasantly surprised at the outcome, whereas if you avoid the uncomfortable opportunity, chances are the situation may only worsen.
Take time to reflect and rehearse before the meeting or presentation. Become familiar with your material and messages. Think about appropriate body language, tone of voice, taking deep breaths, and whatever else might help you relax and feel most confident. Anticipate what might occur during the conversation or presentation. What questions might be asked? Consider possible reactions and prepare your responses for them. Coach and encourage yourself: “I may be feeling uncomfortable, but I know I can do this.” Say to yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen?” The worries that keep you up the night before a big presentation or a dreaded tough conversation always vanish soon enough.
What’s one of the most rewarding accomplishments Stern Strategy Group can lay claim to?
Recent research from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics concludes that 21.5% of startups fail in the first year, 30% in the second year, 50% in the fifth year and 70% in their 10th year.
In 2022, our business reached its 37th year. Now, that’s an amazing accomplishment. Stern Strategy Group has evolved into the destination organization for thought leaders and authorities to expand their reach and further their reputations. To the many former, exemplary employees who invested their time and talents, and to those on the Stern Strategy Group team today who infuse fresh new thinking and creativity into our work, you have made my dream to form a growing, sustainable and healthy organization come true. And to those of you now interested in learning more about joining our team, please contact us at (908) 276-4344 or firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re always looking for top talent!
Organizations with clear purpose and that are rooted in core values stand out from the competition, delivering ethical, outstanding, responsive service while respecting all stakeholders. The power of Stern Strategy Group – Public Relations & Executive Visibility and Speakers & Advisors – generates a positive impact by connecting people, business and ideas, together and with the world. Arrange for us to become your trusted ally that helps you grow and innovate, to change minds and shift behavior, for the better – all in service of a healthier bottom line.